Promoting condoms--who needs them most?
Some time ago, around World AIDS Day this year, a number of Shanghai college students took part in promotional activities on streets and public squares to raise awareness of AIDS. Young ladies handed out free condoms to locals, making a splash on the newspaper headlines.
However, in spite of their zeal and boldness, the students were given the cold shoulder by some passers-by, who either looked embarrassed and stepped quickly sideways, or even threw the condoms into nearby garbage cans.
Some even grunted, though jokingly, when they realized what was inside the package, "Isn't this sexual harassment?"
We have had similar reports before about health workers giving out condoms in various neighbourhoods only arousing a fuss among the residents.
Why do people react to well-meant attention in such an ungrateful manner?
At the height of the nationwide campaign to spread knowledge about AIDS and combat transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, there remains an obvious need for a massive public health condom education campaign.
So there is nothing wrong about students or health workers trying to educate the public about safe sexual behaviour by handing out condoms.
The distribution of the condoms is also well intentioned. But the street is not the proper place for this and indiscriminate distribution in public is offensive.
Unlike other giveaways that may be well received, condoms are special items associated with sex, which most Chinese remain uncomfortable about.
Besides, the condoms in the current campaign are not aimed at pregnancy prevention, but at the avoidance of AIDS, a disease with bad associations in the eyes of many ordinary people.
Handing out condoms at random in public seems all the more repugnant when those who receive one assume the implication is that they should protect themselves against contracting HIV through unsafe sex with partners outside of wedlock.
No surprise, then, that those who have preserved their moral integrity will be annoyed by the gesture.
Generally speaking, Chinese are more traditional than Western people. In traditional Chinese culture, chatting openly about sex has long been considered disgraceful, even dirty.
Sex is a word that few would like to utter in public, and a subject not up for open discussion. We have already taken a great leap forward by breaking the taboo against talking about sex in public, for instance by standing on the streets giving wide publicity to the importance of safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention.
However, many Chinese still find it difficult to bring the subject up. So, while the female students are praiseworthy for their bravery, those who are disgusted with the offer of free condoms should be treated with tolerance, patience and understanding.
After all, changing ideas deep-rooted in tradition and culture is quite a long process. That is why radio hotlines dealing with listeners' sex problems are aired in the small hours.
In my opinion, people are unwilling to accept condoms not because of their lack of consciousness about the campaign, but rather because they are unhappy about the way it is being conducted.
In this context, it is indeed a good idea to install automatic condom vending machines in public places, as they can then be better accepted in our country.
Another argument I would like to advance is this: while giving out condoms and fliers in the streets can create a furore, it is the high-risk groups in hotels, guesthouses, bars, discos and construction sites that we must give more attention to.
Migrant workers are especially in need of such concern, since they are strangers in the city, lonely, helpless and at the mercy of social vice.
It is among these groups that we must aggressively promote condom use. To put people in a more receptive mood, we need to go among them in a friendly way to comprehensively enlighten them about sex. This is a down-to-earth job, worth additional time and efforts.
Large pictures in newspapers showing smiling girls handing out condoms may soon fade from one's memory, but the substantial help given to those exposed to high risks of infection will surely play a very positive role in the long-term fight against the disease.
Yet AIDS prevention strategies will not bring notable results until the condom-usage promotion campaign goes hand in hand with other efficient forms of education, laying the axe to the root of the epidemic through exhibitions and lectures providing responsible, reality-based sexuality and AIDS education.
Always bear in mind that it is those groups which have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections that need our attention most.